Griz Chat with Dr. Crystal Sanders, Martin Luther King Jr. Day Guest Lecturer

Dr. Crystal Sanders will present the University of Montana’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day lecture on Thursday, Jan. 14 at 4 p.m. The lecture is free and open to the public and registration is required.

MISSOULA – Dr. Crystal Sanders, a pre-eminent national scholar from Penn State and associate professor of history and African-American studies, will present the University of Montana’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day lecture.

Sanders will virtually deliver “Back Then They Didn’t Want Me: A Look at Maligned, Misused and Misremembered African American Activists” at 4 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14.

The lecture is free and open to the public and is hosted by the President’s and Provost’s offices and the UM Black Student Union. Participants must register at  

A historian of the United States with research expertise in African American history, southern history and the history of Black education, Sanders’ scholarship explores African Americans’ everyday acts of resistance and resiliency throughout the 20th century to secure the rights and privileges of American citizenship. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Duke University and master’s and doctorate degrees from Northwestern University. 

Ahead of her lecture, Sanders answered a series of questions by email from the UM News Service about the significance of King’s legacy in 2020, renewed calls for social and racial justice and how studying the humanities help us understand the world.

UM News: You’re visiting UM as the guest lecturer for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and presenting a lecture about misremembered African American activists, including how King faced resistance as a controversial figure of his time. What’s at fault when we misremember or curate an inaccurate vision of historical figures like Dr. King?

Sanders: When we misremember or curate an inaccurate vision of historical figures like MLK, we diminish the opposition they faced, which in turn reduces the significance of all they achieved.

UM News: Your scholarship explores some of the everyday acts of resistance and resiliency by African Americans throughout the 20th century. The political activism 2020 brought forth was the first time many students experienced or participated in civil disobedience on a national stage. How did the brave acts of resistance during the Jim Crow era influence the calls for justice we see today?

Sanders: There are certainly important similarities between acts of resistance against white supremacy during the Jim Crow era and present-day calls for justice. In both instances, young people were at the forefront of the protests and engaged in grassroots organizing that was not hierarchical. Additionally, in both instances, Black activists received crucial support from non-Black allies.

UM News: You’re a Fellow at the National Humanities Center, the nation’s independent resource devoted to advancing humanistic study and reflection. We see many of the nation’s great challenges tied directly to the cornerstone ideals of living a just life, and a new generation motivated to study the humanities across law, public policy, social work, history and many others. How does studying the humanities contribute to our greater public consciousness?

Sanders: The humanities help us to understand the world. Humanistic study gives us the tools to engage critically and logically with complex social, economic and political issues confronting society. These skills are useful in every aspect of life.

UM News: This year also saw the passing of the civils rights activist legend Rep. John Lewis, who left a national legacy as a nonviolent student organizer after a life dedicated to civil rights activism. How might the legacy of Lewis and King, in addition to the many brave voices elevated in 2020, bring to light the work that remains?

Sanders: In 1963, MLK said that America had defaulted on its promissory note to Black citizens. The country had defaulted on its promises of freedom, justice and opportunity for African Americans. Two years later, Alabama state troopers beat John Lewis to a bloody pulp. His only crime had been asserting that African Americans had a constitutional right to participate in the electoral process. Here we are in 2021 with states rushing to enact voter ID laws and other barriers to the limit Black access to the ballot box. The present-day voter suppression demonstrates that the work is not finished. America's promissory note is still in default. I can think of no way to honor the legacy of freedom fighters more genuinely than by protecting African American voting rights.

UM News: UM has a proud institutional legacy of addressing issues of social justice, with many active students and alumni choosing to work in fields that make the world a better place. UM also is home to the nation’s third oldest African American studies department. However, we are a predominately white institution and state. How might we work to become more attuned the African American community and honor the call to advance racial equality?

Sanders: A popular expression is “if you build it, they will come.” The University of Montana can amplify its commitment to racial equality by aggressively recruiting and retaining Black faculty, staff and students. Competitive salaries, housing assistance (for faculty, staff and graduate students) and full-ride scholarships for undergraduates can lead to meaningful diversity. Once you increase your nonwhite population, you create meaningful programs to retain that population through mentoring programs, appropriate service and teaching loads and inclusive programs. All of these initiatives will demonstrate that the University’s senior leadership understands that diversity fosters excellence.  

UM News: As we reflect on an inspiring and tumultuous year that ignited a national reckoning for racial and social justice, what might Dr. King say about 2020 – and more importantly, what’s next?

Sanders: I think Dr. King might say that the United States continues to be morally bankrupt and until the country is ready to acknowledge and address its original sin – racism – it can never actually reach its full potential or live up to its creed. I am not sure of the next step. I am confident that the long freedom struggle that has existed in some form since 1619 will continue as new generations push the U.S. to be and do better.


Contact: Tobin Miller Shearer, professor of history, UM director of African-American Studies, 406-622-8227,